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Stanford Report, November 17, 1999

Kahn to mark 50 years of teaching with lecture on eclectic design philosophy


All he's willing to promise is that his comments will start out sleepily and then explode.

"Utterly surprising and original and unpredictable. That's the basis of my teaching and design."

Art Professor Matt Kahn has been shaping and polishing his philosophy of design during 50 years of teaching at Stanford. In a celebration of those 50 years, at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19, he will take the stage in Annenberg Auditorium of the Cummings Art Building and open the door to his inner studio with a lecture that has been evolving for decades.

Photo by L.A. Cicero

"Cyclops: The Camera Is Not a Butterfly Net" probably will be a tactile weave of a discussion, criss-crossing and intersecting and tying together the many threads that compose Kahn's colorful blend of art, technology and service.

"I chose the title to reflect the notion that the world is outrageously rich in imagery," he says. "People -- tourists -- who are out to record what they see with their cameras often tend to bury the very materials they'd like to experience. They end up conventionalizing them with photographs."

Kahn will illustrate his lecture with "tons" of slides, and viewers who would like a preview of the talk can stroll through the retrospective exhibition of his work that is on display at the Stanford Art Gallery through Dec. 5.

Paintings, sculpture, woven wall hangings, jewelry, holiday cards, lighting fixtures, doorknobs, chairs, drawings, photographs -- the number and array of artworks is overwhelming.

Then there are the giddy green and red and blue Easter eggs that hang suspended inside one clear vitrine.

"It was my son's idea to tuck them in the show for a little surprise," Kahn says. "I like it that they're hidden among all the serious paintings. They kind of scream at you."

One wall of the gallery is filled with text panels and photographs from the manuscript of Kahn's upcoming book, Design/Soul and Body. A by-product of his aesthetic and pedagogical tastes, the work evolved from a series of lectures Kahn developed for a course that suggests multiple approaches to such concepts as utility, propaganda, pleasure, vanity and ceremony.

"He's just very good at articulating aesthetics," says Jim Adams, professor of industrial engineering and mechanical engineering. "He's not only excited about design, but he can give students feedback in a way that they understand.

"Plus he's such fun in the classroom."

As a graduate student, some year in the distant past, Adams took a design class from Kahn. They then co-taught a product-design course in the graduate design and mechanical engineering program that has long been Kahn's interdisciplinary baby.

Another long-time friend, English Professor Emeritus Larry Ryan, recalls the courses he and Kahn co-taught at Stanford's campus in Florence in the 1970s.

"We traveled to Urbino and Ravenna, but I was equally impressed with what Matt did with students right in Florence," Ryan says. "I really admired the way he sent them down to the piazza in front of city hall to draw from statues there. He always gave them new ways of looking at things."

Kahn apparently was doing sketches of his own while his students toiled, and several are on display in one room of the Art Gallery.

"They're part of my Venetian experience," he says of the delicate drawings. "The flagpoles in front of San Marco have bronze bases with cast lions around them, and pigeons like to light on the lions. I took a certain pleasure in treating the pigeons almost like blank paper."

The main exhibition room is filled with Kahn's most recent projects -- acrylic paintings on shaped canvases. He builds full-scale models in cardboard with slopes and curves and undercuts that are reproduced in canvas by local artisans.

"The undercuts become tremendously important because I have developed a concept where there's a kind of light that seems to come from within the painting," Kahn says, pointing to his rendition of the Statue of Liberty and the torch that appears to glow against the wall where it is hung.

Viewers approach Kahn's work almost cautiously, bending and twisting as they try to figure out where the light is coming from.

"The problem is that it seems like a trick -- Wow! Acrobatics!" he says. "But I have a real idea that justifies the device so it doesn't become a clever trick.

"When I lost my wife in 1990, the whole idea of emergence became interesting to me, and I work on that a lot. The canvases are shaped in such a way that there's a concealed plane that can receive reflected light."

To meander through the gallery with Kahn is to become acquainted on a personal level. There's a drawing of his son, pieces of jewelry he designed for his wife, and photographs of the 50 carved jack-o-lanterns that line the driveway of his campus home every Oct. 31.

"The pumpkins are an assignment for Art 60. I tell students they must be lanterns, they must emphasize light and they must be consistent with the Halloween attitude -- they must say 'Boo!' Beyond that, they must be utterly inventive."

Always, Kahn says, he wants works of art to interact with designers and users.

Pointing to a silver candle holder on display in one case, he tells how it was made by Cambodian artisans he encouraged in a craft development program sponsored by the U.S. government in the late 1950s.

"They didn't have any sheet silver, so they had to hammer coins into sheet. Then they took nails and shaped them into chasing tools to create the surface figures."

Kahn moves on to a display of textiles that were woven by another group of Cambodians.

"The women worked on looms made of bamboo and strings that they could wind up and take from house to house," he says, recalling the party-like atmosphere that was an integral part of the work. "They were very skillful silk weavers, but the project never got off the ground commercially because we could never prove that the silk didn't come from communist China."

Kahn takes a step back from the case to stand in a spot where he can survey two of the exhibition galleries at once.

"We expect the fine arts to reflect life, but I think design actually embodies it." SR